5 Food Photography Tips to Instantly Improve Your Images

by John Stapel

easy tips to improve your food photography

In this article, I explain five simple but effective techniques to seriously level up your food photography. I also provide plenty of before/after examples, so you can see how each tip will affect your photos in practical situations.

These are the exact techniques I use to capture consistently beautiful food shots in my professional work, and – I promise you – they’re not hard to follow.

So if you’re ready to discover how to photograph food like a pro, then let’s dive right in, starting with my number one tip:

1. Choose an angle that tells the story

Look at enough professional food photography, and you’ll start to see a pattern:

The same angles get used over and over again, such as the flat-lay shot from above and the low-over-the-table shot from the side.

I highly recommend you use these angles as your compositional starting points. However, don’t just select one at random; instead, you must carefully determine the correct angle for your shoot.

Why? Because where you place the camera will influence the type of story you tell. And when you get down to it, food photography is all about telling stories.

So as you set up your composition, think of the food. Notice its size, shape, height, and what makes it unique. Then angle the camera so as to best highlight these qualities.

Take a look at these salmon tacos:

tacos with different compositional angles

Here, I wanted to show all the ingredients and beautiful shapes made by the tortillas and filling. The low-angle shot looks decent, but the overhead shot does a better job of telling the story.

2. Pick a hero object and surround it

A simple food photography setup should start with a hero object – that is, the focal point of your photoshoot, the item you want to highlight. Generally, this is the main dish.

So identify your hero object. Place it on the table.

And then surround it with props that relate to the food. Ingredients, sauces, oils, and cooking utensils can all tell the story of the food’s preparation. Tins, jars, herbs, glasses, fabrics, and linens can hint at the origin of the dish or the season in which it is served.

Don’t go overboard, of course, but do place a few objects in the foreground and background. These will elevate the story of the shot, plus they’ll give your composition physical depth.

In the image of baklava below, my props add to the story. You have the hero object – the bowl of food – but you also have the ingredients (the pistachios), as well as a few background items to add depth and set the scene. The viewer is instantly hit by a sense of place that describes the Arabic origins of this delicious sweet.

baklava on the table

3. Modify natural light for the most flattering food photos

In food photography, light is king. Poor use of light will ruin your shots and turn off your audience. But if you can learn how to control the light, you can instantly bring your food shots to the next level.

I like to use natural light in my food photos. I set up near a window, so I have plenty of light streaming in. But I don’t work with unmodified light; instead, I add various modifiers so I can get the most beautiful results.

First on the list: Place a diffuser between the window and the food, especially if you’re working with direct sunlight. 

You see, direct sunlight produces hard, dark shadows and bright highlights. These can be distracting – but by adding a diffuser, you can soften the light, reduce the shadows, reduce the highlights, and get a lovely effect. Note that you can buy a diffuser for cheap from any photography store, but you also have the option to make a diffuser of your own (just hang a thin white bedsheet in front of the window).

food photography tips

Direct natural light can give hard and defined shadows (check out the shadow beneath the lemon cake on the left). But with a little help from a cheap diffuser, I was able to soften the shadows (as you can see in the image on the right).

Next, I recommend acquiring some white and black cards. You can make these yourself using foam core boards (purchased from pretty much any craft store). 

Simply use the white cards to bounce light into shadow areas and reveal important deals. Use the black cards to strengthen shadows for more contrast. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different card types and distances until you get the result you want.

Finally, I have a lighting secret for you, called blocking. Sometimes that pesky light will fall on your background or props and cause them to be as bright or even brighter than your subject.

This is a big no-no, as you want the viewer to always look first to your subject, but the solution is simple: use your black cards to block light from hitting areas that will compete with your subject. (This is also a very important technique for creating darker, low-key styled images.)

Check out the two images below. The shot on the left has a too-bright background, so I added a black card to ensure the cake remained the brightest part of the photo:

food photography tips with modified light

Here is the final image, with a diffuser softening the window light, a white card filling in the shadow on the lemon frosting, and a black card blocking the light on the background:

food photography tips cake on a plate

4. Use lines and layers for the best compositions

I’ve explained the importance of surrounding your hero object with props – but you need to ensure these props don’t distract from the main subject.

That’s where two easy composition techniques come into play: lines and layers.

You see, by carefully arranging your props in lines and layers, you can lead the audience’s eye to the main subject. Then the viewer won’t get distracted by props; instead, the props will serve the image as a whole.

So creatively use your props to form lines. In this shot, I’ve used a spoon to direct the viewer straight toward the bowl of baked peaches and ice cream:

ice cream with peaches

Below, I’ve shared another example of careful use of lines. In the left-hand image, I’ve positioned the cutlery to lead to the round of Brie, and in the right-hand image, I’ve gone slightly more abstract, letting the knife and pomegranate seeds create lines that frame the subject.

different versions of a food photo with lines

I also recommend using layers to create three-dimensional compositions. You’ll want to shoot from the side (so your camera is positioned low over the table), and you should add various props staggered in front of and behind your subject. For shots like these, a shallow depth of field can prevent the props from becoming too distracting.

The Brie in the photo below is set in the middle of various props and two large out-of-focus areas. This creates a three-dimensional layered effect and sends your eyes straight to the hero object:

10 Tip04 Layers

5. Simplify your compositions by limiting the color

When I was just starting out as a food photographer, I often made a major mistake:

I would add in colorful props – and they would upstage my food and grab all the attention.

Instead, when you hunt for props, backgrounds, and tableware to put in your images, don’t get too color-hungry. Search for items with neutral tones: grays, browns, blacks, silvers, whites.

Then, when placing items into your food images, pick props that the food can really pop against. In the shot below, I’ve used a black metal tray and baking paper to amplify the bright red strawberries and rhubarb inside these Crostatas. That way, the food steals the show – and the props, while complementary, don’t distract from the main event.

image with very few colors

Food photography tips: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you know how to photograph food like a pro – so you’re ready to start capturing some stunning food photos of your own.

Just remember to pay careful attention to the light and the composition. That way, your cooking photography can really shine!

Now over to you:

Which of these food photoshoot tips do you plan to use? What types of food do you like to photograph? Share your thoughts (and images) in the comments below!

  • GENERAL

  • PREPARATION

  • LIGHTING

  • COMPOSITION

  • GEAR

  • ADVANCED GUIDES

  • CREATIVE TECHNIQUES

  • POST-PROCESSING

  • INSPIRATION

5 Food Photography Tips to Instantly Improve Your Images